NIH Renews Funding for Largest Training Grant at UConn Health

PhD student Michelle Spoto explaining her research poster to reconstructive sciences researcher Alex Lichtler during the Skeletal, Craniofacial and Oral Biology annual symposium Monday at UConn Health. (Photo by Tina Encarnacion)
PhD student Michelle Spoto explaining her research poster to reconstructive sciences researcher Alex Lichtler during the Skeletal, Craniofacial and Oral Biology annual symposium Monday at UConn Health. (Photo by Tina Encarnacion)
From left, UConn Dental School Dean Monty MacNeil, Dr. Mina Mina, Dr. Sotirios Tetradis, and Dr. Jon Goldberg during UConn Health's Skeletal, Cranioacial & Oral Biology annual symposium. (Photo by Tina Encarnacion)
From left, UConn Dental School Dean Monty MacNeil, Dr. Mina Mina, Dr. Sotirios Tetradis, and Dr. Jon Goldberg during UConn Health’s Skeletal, Cranioacial & Oral Biology annual symposium. (Photo by Tina Encarnacion)

The largest and longest held training grant at UConn Health has been renewed for another five years by the National Institutes of Health for more than $3 million. The Skeletal, Craniofacial and Oral Biology (SCOB) training grant was developed in 1980 and was one of the first programs established in the United States dedicated to advancing academic dentistry by educating and preparing outstanding and dedicated researchers and leaders in dental education.

“The UConn School of Dental Medicine was considered a pioneer at the time for introducing the DMD/PhD training track,” says Dr. Mina Mina, professor and chair of the Division of Pediatric Dentistry, Department of Craniofacial Sciences, a graduate of the program and now its director. “Our alumni have made an impact on the academic world by becoming successful researchers and educators not only in dental institutions but also in medical and graduate schools.”

The program is one of the major reasons cited for the UConn dental school winning the 2016 William J. Gies Award for Outstanding Achievement by an Academic Dental Institution earlier this year. The Gies Awards are considered to be among the preeminent awards in the field of dental education.

The Skeletal, Craniofacial and Oral Biology grant supports training for students pursuing a combined DMD and PhD; PhD; and DMD or PhD graduates (post docs) seeking advanced research training. Over the years, the program has supported more than 50 scientists in their career endeavors.

Fifth year PhD student Spenser Smith is one of them.  He’s been working in the lab of skeletal biology researcher Anne Delany, studying microRNAs and how they impact bone development. After a competitive approval process, Smith was awarded a SCOB training grant three years ago which has allowed him to gain valuable experiences he would not have been exposed to otherwise.

From left, fifth-year PhD student Spenser Smith talking with former SCOB director William Upholt and Jon Goldberg, the programs co-director. (Photo by Tina Encarnacion)
From left, fifth-year PhD student Spenser Smith talking with former SCOB director William Upholt and Jon Goldberg, program co-director. (Photo by Tina Encarnacion)

“This grant has supported my salary and given me the freedom of choosing a certain direction in my research, which is very important in the scientific process to develop your own hypotheses and your own critical thinking skills,” explains Smith.

The training grant has also allowed Smith to travel to more than 15 scientific conferences. “It has helped to advance my career in that I’m able to travel to these conferences and gain a greater understanding of skeletal biology, meet leading investigators in my field, all the while improving and refining my presentation skills.”

Smith was one of the 15 trainee presenters during UConn Health’s Skeletal, Craniofacial & Oral Biology annual symposium on Monday which is funded by the training grant. The keynote speaker was Dr. Soitras Tetradis from the UCLA School of Dentistry, who is nationally renowned in the field of Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology. Dr. Tetradis also led an informal session with the trainees where they discussed navigating an academic career and personal life.

Rubbing shoulders with leading experts in the field can have a big impact on a trainee’s career. The day-to-day relationship with their faculty advisor is also key.

Jon Goldberg, professor of Reconstructive Sciences, and co-director of the training program says, “One of the reasons we’re successful is because of the quality of our mentors. Our committee selects the faculty, and then they identify the students, and as a team they apply for the funding. So it’s competitive on a couple of levels.”

Smith says mentorship has been crucial to his success. “Students and faculty have monthly meetings as a group and we talk about each other’s research.  We see how we’re doing, we’re supportive of each other, which is another important aspect of our training.”

“The goal is getting them to be independent researchers,” says Goldberg. “And the evidence is very clear. The trainees who have presented at meetings, have published papers, and have been awarded their own grants even before they graduate, are most successful long-term.”